Ag Policy Blog

Senators Question EPA Involvement in Panel in Light of CAFO Release

By Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter

Although EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe recently told Congress that the agency is asking back personal information released to environmental groups about confined animal feeding operations, a group of Republican senators is questioning the scheduled involvement of EPA Region 9 representative Lily Lee on a June 28 panel moderated by the Natural Resources Defense Council talking about how citizens can acquire sensitive information.

According to a brochure for the California Bar Association conference, "Private Enforcement of Environmental Law: Prosecuting and Defending Citizens' Suits," in Oakland, Calif., Lee is part of a panel entitled "Government Information and Citizen Enforcement in the Digital Age: What to Get and How to Get It," http://tinyurl.com/….

In February 2013 EPA acknowledged that it release personal information on CAFOs seven months after the agency told livestock industry officials it would take measures to protect farmers' personal information.

The information was recently released to a number of environmental interest groups including panel moderator Natural Resources Defense Council, Pew Charitable Trust and Earth Justice. The information released by EPA covers CAFOs in more than 30 states. This includes many family farmers and ranchers who feed less than 1,000 head and are not subject to the Clean Water Act.

EPA dropped a proposed CAFO reporting rule in July 2012 that would have required cattle producers to provide a wide array of information about their operations directly to EPA.

At the time EPA said it could instead acquire the data from states that operated CAFO permitting programs. The information was to be used to create a national database, drawing heated opposition from cattle producers. EPA collected data from states, making it subject to federal FOIA requests.

On Friday, U.S. Sens. David Vitter, R-La., John Thune, R-S.D., Deb Fischer, R-Neb., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, sent a letter to EPA Region 9 Administrator Jared Blumenfeld, questioning EPA's motivation for taking part in the panel.

"EPA has shown a disregard for its duty to protect sensitive data entrusted to it by private citizens," the senators said in the letter.

"There is simply no excuse for EPA's failure to effectively protect CAFO-related data or for its refusal to brief members of Congress on this issue. This Congressional investigation should be taken seriously by EPA. Although perhaps unintended, the agency's participation in this panel would make a mockery of it. We therefore request that EPA refrain from participating on the panel."

The letter said "while the public is entitled to information on governmental agencies, the June 28 panel appears to be geared towards third parties in their efforts to obtain private data that may not otherwise be readily accessible to them for purposes of citizen suit litigation.

"Further, although EPA's participation in meetings and events is appropriate in many circumstances, the EPA's presence on this particular panel would only reinforce the well-founded impression that the agency may be collaborating with environmental groups in their efforts to bring citizen suit litigation which results in EPA commitments to take certain enforcement or regulatory actions."

The senators said EPA should refrain from the panel because of "ongoing investigations" into the CAFO information release.

"In order to avoid any actual or apparent conflict of interest, it is incumbent on EPA employees to stay an arm's length away from NRDC in matters involving third-party access to private information held by the government," the letter said.

"Second, the panel is part of a conference rife with litigious environmental groups and lacking organizations that could offer the perspective of farmers and other natural resource users. Because the conference provides no forum on the importance of protecting certain sensitive information, it encourages the perception that litigious environmental groups collaborate with EPA in sue-and-settle practices.

"Third, EPA should not participate on this panel because the agency has yet to comply with Congressional demands on the ongoing CAFO investigation."

Read the news release, letter and brochure here, http://tinyurl.com/….

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